Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Adventures in Mexico

I'm so excited to have a reason to update my travel blog. It had felt too long. This time it was to somewhere I'd never been to, Mexico, with Mike a very sweet soul of 'good value' from New Zealand and who some of you reading this blog will know.

We had no plan as such, other than we booked one way tickets to Cancun on Jan 2nd and figured we'd be away for most of January. Neither of us are really resort people, we just wanted to bus around the Yucatan peninsula and head off the beaten track a little. Mike has conversational Spanish which proved invaluable along the way, especially in places where we were the only gringos and people really don't speak English. If people speak slowly enough I can often grasp what they're saying and I feel I can speak 'pokito mas' now. My brother had also given me the Lonely Planet guide to the Yucatan (or the Lonely Bastard as Mike likes to call it, and what it will be referred to as in this blog) and this book was a pretty decent help to us along the way.

In the picture below you can see the route we took over 23 days in blue. I'll go through each place we stopped and just point out the highlights as is my usual style for this blog. Still it may be a longish one, we covered a lot of ground.

Jan 2nd: Cancun
First off, we managed to dodge the snow storms and left from Atlanta on Jan 2nd for Cancun. We didn't have any plans to stay here so just spent the evening in a hotel in Ciudad Cancun which is about 20 min drive from the beach resorts.

When we got to our hotel a 6 year old girl and her 8 year old brother checked us in. Odd but cute. The place we stayed was pretty decent. From the photos online it looked like it was a bit of a prison cell but it wasn't, it was just a simple, bare, clean room with a nice rooftop. We ended up staying there a few nights ago on our last evening, we even had the same room as before. I thought it had looked really done up since the last time. Mike just thinks my standards dropped a lot over the last 23 days - probably true.

Jan 3rd: Tulum
First thing next morning we headed to Tulum. We had no place to stay there so found a hotel along the main drag rather than the beach. We wanted to suss out the cabanas they had on the beach the next day before we decided whether to stay. The hotel we found was very odd, the windows faced into the hallways of the hotel rather than outside and it had a big religious alter in the lobby. I received my first ever bug bite in this hotel, blah!

Tulum was a little more crowded than we'd hoped for so we headed off down the side streets away from the bars and restaurants aimed at tourists and found much better food at places where the locals ate. The beaches in Tulum were stunning though, the nicest we'd come across during the whole trip. It was just a shame everyone else thought the same thing. We'd heard its a much quieter place after the holidays. So after consulting the Lonely Bastard we found a place called Punta Allen that appealed. Its only 50km or so south of Tulum but definitely off the beaten track. There's one collectivo (a small mini van that holds about 12 people) a day from Tulum and you have to travel the bumpiest road at 30km/hr for almost 2 hours to get there.

Jan 4th - 7th Punta Allen:
We found a place called Sirena's in Punta Allen the next morning after looking online, so we mailed her and decided to just go on the collectivo regardless of whether we heard back from her, we figured we'd find somewhere to stay.

There were 2 American girls on the collectivo as well as an older American guy. After our seriously bumpy ride we arrived at a laguna and waited for the boat to take us across to Punta Allen at sunset. This was more like it. Punta Allen is a tiny town of 400 people within the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. We made it to Sirena's and thankfully she had a house for us called Casa Grande to rent for the 2 days we'd asked for. We eventually stayed for 4.

- The electricity in the town is only on from 11am to 2pm and from 5pm to 11pm each day.
- The town has 5 restaurants and Sirena would find out each night which one was open.
- We didn't even have a key to our place, it was that kind of town.
- Sirena (Spanish for mermaid but real name Gail) was originally from California, a former adventurer who had been shipwrecked 3 times and now ran her little lodge for the last 18 years in Punta Allen. Quite a lady and full of stories, here's her website Definitely worth staying there.

Each day was spent lazing on the beach (not as nice as Tulum though), hanging out in hammocks and eating & drinking. We had the American girls over to our garden one evening for drinks in the hammocks. Mike even went fishing for a day (I get too seasick for that unfortunately). There's a lighthouse at the end of the beach. We were told if we scaled the wall we could climb to the top. We met up with the American girls for that mission, totally worth the view.

Jan 8th - 9th Mahahual:
We got the bumpy collectivo back to Tulum at 6am and hopped on a bus to Mahahual, further down the east coast. We'd heard it could be a different place if there was a cruise ship in town, which there was when we arrived. It was nuts, the town was full of drunk 20-somethings at 1pm, not appealing at all. Thankfully the cruise ship left around 4pm and it was a much quieter place and hassling vendors went home. We stayed a stone's throw from the beach and after some swim time we checked out a place called 100% Agave run by Fernando and supposedly home of the best margaritas. They definitely lived up to their reputation. We ended up talking to an English couple at the bar who were on their honeymoon and had dinner with them, lots of fun!

Jan 10th - 12th Laguna Bacalar:
We hopped on another collectivo on Monday afternoon to Laguna Bacalar known for its amazing blue lagoon. The collectivo dropped us off on the highway, and with a vague idea of where we were going we hiked with our packs for 25 mins before reaching our new accommodation at Casita Carolina's. It turned out to be one of our favourite places to stay. There was a lovely American woman named Marsha who was taking care of the place for a few weeks. She currently lives in Merida in the north west of the Yucatan, where we visited later on. We stayed in the blue house and we shared a kitchen and living room area with another couple for 3 nights.

- Lots of hammock and reading time
- Mike cooked dinner 2 nights in a row
- We bought some horrible tequila
- We also bought cards and Mike taught me how to play 500. I sucked but slowly got better after a few frustrated temper tantrums
- We were walking home one evening from the supermarket to cook dinner when we saw an old VW van selling bread out of the back of it. We were their last customers of the day before they zoomed out of town. They even had a woman in the back with a big fly swat keeping the flies off the bread. Interesting job.
- We went swimming in a cenote, a 90 metre deep sinkhole. Such a refreshing swim and the water was perfect. Kind of trippy swimming in water that deep.

Jan 13th Chetumal:
We took another collectivo to Chetumal and stayed in a bright blue and red hotel called Hotel Ucum. We wandered the city a little and then went in search of a bar. The only bar the Lonely Bastard suggested wasn't open anymore so we hopped into a diner for beers, then found a place with live music. There was a woman who I initially thought was a man in drag, performing songs and comedy, in Spanish of course. Mike saw the poster outside advertising her, Miss Pussy. Rather amusing! We ordered some guacamole with our beers but they brought us tons of free food anyway that came with the beers. We didn't need dinner that night.

The next day the army were everywhere, for no apparent reason. They seem like more of a deterrent than anything else throughout the area. We hung out a cafe while we waited for our bus. The cafe we stopped at broadcasts a talkshow radio program every morning at a regular table, very cool (see above). Mike also found his favourite expresso in Mexico here, and believe me he tried a lot! :)

Jan 14th Zoh Laguna:
We wanted to check out some Mayan ruins so we headed to Xpujil. On the bus ride, passing the state line we passed through a military checkpoint, lots of big guns and serious looking soldiers. One of them got on and searched a few passenger's bags. We figured since we were the only gringos on the bus (as usual) we'd also be checked which we were. The guy asked where we were from as he checked our bags. He noticed Mike's cigarettes and said 'no marajuana?' to which Mike replied 'eh no, solo tobac'. The soldier just nodded and smiled like an approving father, very funny but of course we couldn't laugh in his face.

There's a small village just outside it called Zoh Laguna and we stayed at a place with cabanas owned by a 70 something year old man named Antonio. He was such a gracious host and cooked us dinner himself. It was like our grandfather cooking for us. We were the only ones for dinner. Then he sat down and talked to us in Spanish about the ruins which he made quite understandable and at least Mike could politely reply back as opposed to me just nodding.

- The cabana was pretty cool and even had a TV so we got to watch Bad Boys with Will Smith, a crazy Friday night!
- Antonio had tons of animals and we were awoken by roosters, birds (including parrots), turkeys, cows, goats. He even had 3 spider monkeys in a small cage which was very sad and the only black mark against old Antonio.

Jan 15th Xupjil ruins and Rio Bec Dreams:
We hired a taxi driver for the morning to take us to the Becan and Chicanna ruins. We had Becan to ourselves which was fantastic and there were certain ruins you could climb with the use of a rope. Chicanna had a few more people there but still pretty quiet although not as cool.

We stayed at a place the Lonely Bastard had highly recommended called Rio Bec Dreams, which we have since renamed Rio Bec Nightmares. Our 'jungalow', their version of a cabin in the jungle (although you can hear the highway so not really in the jungle) was so overpriced. As was the food, even though it was lukewarm and they didn't even serve Mexican food. And the owner was an obnoxious, overbearing English woman who felt like she was doing us a massive favor if we asked for a beer. Definitely the least favourite place we stayed.

Jan 16th 17th - Campeche:
After 2 quite long bus journeys, one of which featured an older Mexican lady loudly preaching god right beside Mike for a good 45 mins, we made it to Campeche, a cool cobbled-stoned city at the gulf of Mexico on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

There was a fun bar we wanted to check out so we popped in not long before they closed (5.30pm since it was a Sunday). People were starting to leave so the young bartender felt freed up enough to find time to read a porn mag sitting under the bar across from us. He saw us looking, gave us a nod and a smile and went back to it. We found another open air place nearer the water and sat beside a table of locals. One of them was super friendly, a little tipsy and wanted to practice his English. He kept asking me if Mike was my wife, really funny guy.

We tried to rent bikes the next day but the seats were rubbish and it would have been a very uncomfortable ride so we went for a nice long walk instead through the market.
While having a coffee an American man came over and asked to borrow our Lonely Bastard. His son came over too, an adorable kid 4 year old named Ory who was all chat. He even drew me a picture for me to keep, very sweet little boy.

After siesta, we started off with sundowners on the roof of the hostel overlooking the main plaza. We went for a wander, found a cool dive bar that played lots of random 70's and 80's music on a jukebox, and then ate some great local food at a plaza away from the tourist drag. Campeche was a really nice town.

Jan 18th - 19th Merida:
Merida is most definitely a city. We arrived in the hot afternoon and it was super humid. We found a lovely hostel right on the plaza that served really good breakfasts.

- We checked out a great free musuem depicting the history of the Mayans in murals, some very powerful and haunting.
- We ate at the same restaurant 3 times (very unusual for us) but it was soooo good.
- We found another local dive bar and definitely got looks when we walked in but people seemed ok with it.
- We met up with Marsha, the American lady who was minding the place we stayed at in Bacalar and she had us over for drinks. From the front a lot of the buildings in Merida look really run down, like old warehouses. Behind the doors, as we saw at Marsha's, there are some palaces. She was renting a stunning space with her friend which included a massive kitchen, pool, outdoor bar and entertaining area.
- Marsha took us to the market the next day where both Marsha and Mike bought hammocks after some excellent bargaining on their part in Spanish with the owner.

Jan 20th - 21st Santa Elena:
We rented a car in Merida to check out some more ruins and drive around a bit instead of relying on the buses. The freedom of the car was nice. We stayed at a place owned called The Pickled Onion by a lovely English woman named Valarie. She rents out adobe-walled Mayan huts just outside the village of Santa Elena. Definitely another favorite place to stay. And she had a pool which was super refreshing.

We checked out a another set of ruins that evening called Kabah and left just minutes before a bus load of Japanese tourists arrived, phew!

That night we'd heard there was a fireworks show in the village, less than 10 mins walk away. Valarie told us it was a festival of the bulls where a man would wear a bull headdress and shoot fireworks from it. At the main plaza there was a party bus that played music (you may have to see the photo to get it) and drove around the village. There were also a bunch of amusements for the kids. The the foot of the steps to the church we saw them setting up some fireworks so we decided to take a front row seat, just behind a bunch of teenagers. We noticed the rest of the village moving further up the steps and wondered if they knew something we didn't but figured we'd still like the front row seats. They set off a few of the fireworks in front of us which was cool (all homemade by the way). Then the bull headdress came out. The guy lit all the fireworks and then ran towards us. Everyone started laughing and screaming as the fireworks flew in every direction, now we knew why everyone else was further away. We nearly peed ourselves laughing so hard from fear and excitement. Mike even wound up with some sparks landing on his shorts. One of the wildest things I've been in the middle of. You really need to check out the video to even kind of get it. Here's the link to the video

The evening finished up with a structure of 4 wheels spinning fireworks around a poster of Jesus. All the while a band played behind us. A most bizarre evening!

The next day we went to check out our last ruins at Uxmal which were really impressive. There were quite a few people there since they're pretty popular and after a couple of hours we were ruined-out. That afternoon we just drove around the countryside.

Jan 22nd - Jan 23rd Vallolid:
We wanted to check out some Cenotes on the way back to Merida before we dropped off the car but we had to drive through a bunch of small villages that are like one way mazes with no direction. Mike did an excellent job of keeping direction but it still took too long to get there so we had to skip the cenotes in order to drop the rental car back on time.

That afternoon we took a bus to Valldolid. Its another nice little town and after trying a few places, we managed to get into a hotel near the main plaza. We did a little bar hopping but had an early night. I think all the driving caught up with us.

The next day we found an even better place to stay and Mike shrewdly negotiated for a cheaper rate, his Spanish has definitely improved over the weeks! We tried to rent bikes the next afternoon but again the bikes were rubbish and the other places with supposedly decent bikes was closed. So we hung out at our new digs and had a siesta in the hammocks. Did I mention everywhere has hammocks?

That night we had another wander around town for a bite, it was pretty quiet though since it was Sunday.

We had the following (Monday) morning free so we hit the bike rental place early. The Lonely Bastard writes that the owner is a 'cantankerous old character'. That is an understatement. He's really rude and about 120, and was wearing just a small pair of white shorts in his garage.

He let us pick out our bikes and then Mike asked for a lock since we were cycling to some local cenotes and would be swimming. The lock didn't look that long so Mike mentioned it to him. This is how the conversation went.

Mike: Have you got a longer lock?
Old dude shouting in a heavy Mexican: Don't lose the key!
Mike: I won't but have you got a longer lock?
Old dude: Otherwise you pay everything!!
Mike (irritated): Claro but do you think it will fit both bikes?
Old dude: Everything!! Put it in your pocket. You pay everything!!
Mike: F%^k this, lets go.
Old dude as we're walking out with our bikes: Don't lose the key!!

It was about 20 mins to the Cenotes and the bikes sucked, we had to stand most of the way since the seats were too painful and the roads were bumpy. The cenote was really cool though. It was underground, artificially lit and full of limestone stalagmites. Again we were the only ones there, apart from the catfish and as we left, a big tour bus pulled up. Excellent timing by us again!

Jan 24th Cancun:
That afternoon we took our final to bus to Cancun. We checked in to the same hotel that we stayed at the first night and we went out for some last evening beers and food.

Jan 25th:
Tuesday morning we said some sad goodbyes. Mike has a guiding/driving gig in South America in just over a week so he's making his way down there now through Belize and I had to come back to the US to move out of my apartment in Atlanta. I'm heading up to New York next week for a few months to sort out some visa stuff which is a whole other story.

It was a fantastic trip and possibly my favourite adventure. It was great figuring it out as we went and the Mexican people were so friendly and welcoming, especially off the beaten track. We saw a lot in the few weeks but there's so much more to see, just even in the Yucatan peninsula. I really hope it won't be my last visit to Mexico. I've even been inspired to think about Spanish lessons for my next adventure.

Hope you enjoyed, I know it was a long read. Here are the photos!